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McKenzie backs his mate to lift the Tahs

Date

Jim Morton

Cultural change … Michael Cheika.

Cultural change … Michael Cheika. Photo: Brendan Esposito

EWEN McKENZIE believes new Waratahs coach Michael Cheika is tailor-made for the task of re-awakening the sleeping Super Rugby giant that is NSW.

Former NSW coach McKenzie, who took the underachieving province to two grand finals in four seasons before being cut adrift in 2008, is wary of a revitalised NSW under his long-time Randwick teammate.

Now aiming to guide Queensland to a third straight season on top of the Australian conference ladder, McKenzie knows the task will be tougher with Cheika ensuring a cultural overhaul within a Wallabies-laden roster.

Despite their obvious depth of talent, the Waratahs won just four matches last season and coach Michael Foley quit to link with the Western Force.

''Cheika will culturally get them focused,'' McKenzie said. ''He's very motivated, he understands team culture and will do a good job.

''And all the players have enjoyed the highest representation in the Wallabies, so those two things together will make some sort of difference and that will be good for Australian rugby if the Waratahs are out there.''

McKenzie led NSW to the 2005 and 2008 deciders as well as the 2006 semi-finals but well knows the pressure that comes with the Waratahs job following an injury-hit 2007 and subsequent axing at the end of his five-year contract.

''A lot of people like to contribute,'' he said of the environment. ''In the end Cheiks has a good personality for all of that. He doesn't suffer fools, he's pretty much his own man, he'll articulate that and no one will be left not understanding about what's required.

''When you've got that you can drive a team ethos and culture in a certain direction. I'm sure they will make good progress.''

Cheika - who coached Irish club Leinster to the European Cup before heading to Stade Francais - will make his Super Rugby coaching debut against McKenzie when the Waratahs play the Reds at Suncorp Stadium on February 23.

Cheika has quickly earned a reputation for adding a harder edge to the Waratahs through a tough pre-season training campaign, and also admitted bringing cultural change was a major part of his job. ''Ewen knows that more than anyone because he was the last person to be able to put the right identity into the Waratahs jersey,'' Cheika said.

''They had a strong culture then and it's up to us to make sure we have that uncompromising nature about us no matter who plays. You know it's a difficult challenge that every coach must meet.

''You just have to make your own page with the guys and get the buy-in with the way we want to do things. So far that's the case.''

Halfback Brendan McKibbin has emerged as a captaincy contender and will lead the Waratahs in their opening two trials, starting on Saturday against the Rebels in Hobart.

AAP

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